Recently, I was asked the most interesting question (or series of questions) by a publishing firm that was considering my job application. The question was: what are your five favourite books, and why? It was hard enough coming up with a list of only five books; it was even worse trying to explain why I liked them in a reasonable amount of words. I’ve always loved these books and have variously mentioned them to friends. I also go on and on about them if anyone will listen. What I hadn’t done prior to my application is come up with a concise paragraph of what makes each of them so unique and lovable. Who knew that a job app could benefit me in this way? If anyone asks me the same question, I can simply refer them to this post and they’ll understand how I feel about these books.
I hope this list inspires someone (anyone!) to read these books – that would be really great. Also, if anyone has already read them and has something to say/discuss about them, let’s talk in the comments! I would love to hear from fellow literature lovers.
- If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
Traveller is a perennial favourite of mine; I liked it so much that I did my Honours Thesis on it. As a metafictional book, its self-referentiality is humorously and masterfully treated as an engaging part of the plot. Traveller is also modelled after the game structure of choose-your-own-adventure books with a literary twist. The various literary (and social) conventions that are referenced in Traveller mean that it is as much a good piece of fiction as it is a commentary on conventions of all sorts. Apart from these aspects, I really enjoyed Calvino’s honest and witty meditations on life, love, and the writing process. The book also hints at the infinite wealth of creative possibility in the written word, and this deeply inspires me both as a reader and writer.
- The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
The Illustrated Man changed my perspective on reality when I first read it a decade ago. It has stayed with me ever since, revealing new truths each time I examine it. As speculative fiction, this collection of short stories is set in the future, but is fundamentally an exploration of humanity and human relationships. Each story is told from a different perspective, and these stories are carried by the illustrated man, a homeless man who’s covered in tattoos. I especially liked the ending, which uses the ultimate severing of human relations to mark the end of the tale.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Dorian Gray explores the complex intersections between art, morality, and human relationships. It chronicles the promises and pitfalls of aestheticism as an artistic and moral position in the development of Dorian Gray’s life. The lyrical quality of the prose and the vivid characterisation of Dorian’s hedonistic lifestyle introduced me to the debate on the intersection of art and morality. I have not come across a better piece of fiction that has dealt with these issues in such an engaging way.
- Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Alasdair Gray
Lanark is a semi-autobiographical speculative fiction novel that has strong echoes of Dante’s Inferno. It alternates between the realistic story of its protagonist and the fantastical story of his rebirth into a dystopian world set in the future. While the plot is fairly gripping and the literary references are delightful, the core of this book is its exploration of dysfunctional relationships. I thoroughly enjoyed the way Lanark discusses art, life, love, hate, society and how these things are built up and broken down by people. It is one of my favourite books because of the beautiful, grotesque, and breathtaking way in which the story unfolds.
- A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
I follow Philip K. Dick’s œuvre closely, but this book particularly intrigued me. The irreverent humour of Scanner belies its serious treatment of the subjects of relationships, drugs, consumerism, technology, and identity. The question at the heart of Scanner is: how do people create meaning in a changing world where nothing and no one can be trusted? The characters in Scanner abuse drugs to escape from their dysfunctional relationships and the terrifying possibility that their lives are meaningless. The subtle existential undertones of this book, along with its surreal moments, make this a very memorable book.
In case anyone was wondering, I’ve also done that 10 Favourite Books meme circulating on Facebook (yes I know it didn’t say “favourites” specifically, but my favourites are the ones that left the biggest impression on me anyway). Here’s my list:
- Italo Calvino – If on a winter’s night a traveler
- Ray Bradbury – The Illustrated Man
- Alasdair Gray – Lanark: A Life in Four Books
- Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights
- Sheri S. Tepper – True Game
- Eric Berne – Games People Play
- Audrey Niffenegger – The Time Traveler’s Wife
- Douglas Adams – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
- Alan Moore – V for Vendetta
- Philip K. Dick – A Scanner Darkly
- Robert Cormier – I Am the Cheese
Yep, I cheated and added two more. They were really too good not to miss out on. Do leave a comment with your favourite books if you haven’t already told me!